Liberal candidates feeling the heat

James McLeod
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Debate descends into shouting frenzy as leadership race gets in full swing

After more than two sweltering hours in the Gander Arts and Culture Centre, all five Liberal leadership candidates were sweating.

The debate got loud and nasty a few times as the contenders verbally prodded each other. Party organizers made sure they covered a lot of ground, including fracking, the fishery, rural revitalization, health care, crime rates, tourism, ferry service and many more issues.

But over and over again, the candidates retreated to the territory where they were most comfortable, and made it clear to audience members what they’re staking their campaign on.

When in doubt, Paul Antle stopped talking about the Liberal leadership campaign altogether and attacks Premier Kathy Dunderdale and her PC government.

Danny Dumaresque, when asked a question about how to revitalize rural Newfoundland, somehow ended up talking about Muskrat Falls, and how it’s a bad deal for the province. Dumaresque displayed an uncanny ability to end up talking about Muskrat Falls throughout the night.

Jim Bennett seemed to be happiest down in the weeds, talking about policy minutia and addressing education, health care, tourism, the fishery and just about everything else with daunting specificity.

Dwight Ball’s core message was that he’s already been the leader of the Liberal party for more than a year, and things have been pretty darned good during that time.

He repeatedly reminded people that when he took over as interim leader in the wake of the 2011 election, people were writing the Liberal party’s obituary.

“When our party was at one of its lowest points, I stepped forward and accepted the role of leader,” Ball said in his opening statement.

“I believe that as your leader, and over the last year and a half, I have held the wheel steady and helped plot the course to become the next government of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Cathy Bennett was probably the hardest to nail down; she spent plenty of time talking about education and taking shots at Dunderdale, but she spent more time talking about Muskrat Falls than anything else — even though it was abundantly clear that she didn’t really want to.

“I want to talk about jobs. I want to talk about people that are hurting in the community. I want to talk about rural Newfoundland and the fact that this government has given up on rural Newfoundland. I want to talk about how people are feeling that they’re left behind,” Cathy Bennett told The Telegram after the debate.

“We’ve got a lot of big issues that we need to address, and we’d better start talking about them and get plans in place.”

She was on the board of Nalcor while Muskrat Falls was under development, and of the five contenders, she’s the only one who vocally supports the current plan to develop the $7.7-billion hydroelectric project.

Over the course of Thursday night, the debate descended into a shouting match between candidates as the other four candidates used opportunities to mark Cathy Bennett as the odd one out.

At one point, Ball listed all of the political appointments she   received in recent years before saying, “I welcome you to the Liberal Party.”

Ball said he thinks it’s a fair issue to raise.

“I’ve been Liberal a long time, and I welcome people back to this party, but it’s fair to ask the question: what makes people a Liberal today?” he said.

The nasty jabs were surprising to some observers, because the Liberals are using a ranked ballot to pick the leader in November.

That means if nobody wins more than half the votes outright, they’ll be relying on voters ranking them second or third to give them a majority of support.

With his experience as interim leader, along with endorsements from most Liberal MHAs and most Liberal MPs, Ball is almost certainly the frontrunner in the race, although only Jim Bennett would really acknowledge that.

“Dwight, for all practical purposes, is the incumbent because he has been the interim leader for 20 months or so,” Jim Bennett said. “Logically, he should be the frontrunner. If he’s not the frontrunner, then I would wonder why not.”

The party is planning various forums in St. John’s, Corner Brook and Labrador after Labour Day. Eligible party members and supporters will cast their votes in November to pick the new leader.

Twitter: TelegramJames

Organizations: The Telegram, Liberal Party

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Muskrat Falls, November.That Corner Brook

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Recent comments

  • Barrelman
    August 25, 2013 - 15:39

    Mr. Jim Bennett is the only leader here. Mr. Ball's 'might is right' style of politics is only for he Smallwood era, his policies are outdated and dangerous. Mr. Bennett is for the people, no a select few, and voters are buying in.